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Walter White is no White Savior

[ 51 ] September 14, 2012 |

he didn't die for sins, won't die for sins, because FUCK YOU and your sins

Malcolm Harris is convinced that Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is yet another example of the White Savior, i.e.

The white guy who enters a world supposedly beneath him where he doesn’t belong yet nonetheless triumphs over the inhabitants is older than talkies. TV Tropes calls it “Mighty Whitey,” and examples range from Tom Cruise as Samurai and Daniel Day Lewis as Mohican[.]

I’m not one to cut Dances-with-Braveheart-Smurf slack, as I abhor little more than the notion that a white mind triumphs over brown bodies, but in this case I think Harris’ criticism is misguided. Lindsay more than adequately addresses Harris’ concern with the “purity” of Walter’s product, so I’ll focus on the simple fact that Harris doesn’t understand the trope he thinks is operative here. He seems to believe that any time a white person succeeds in a predominantly non-white discipline, said person automatically qualifies for the title of White Savior. But the examples he provides—The Last Samurai and Last of the Mohicans—indicate that on some level he’s aware that this trope traditionally involves more than a white man out-doing his non-white competitors in whatever it is they’re doing. It involves a white man teaching non-white people how to be the best non-white people they can be by leading them into battle as only a white man can. There’s typically a cultural synergy—the white man embodies the “best” traits of whites and non-whites—that enables the White Savior to lead his primitative horde to victory.

The problem with claiming this trope to be operative in Breaking Bad isn’t just that there’s no cultural synergy, nor is it just that Walter cares little for the fate of the non-white people his work displaces. Walter cuts a culturally unique figure: he’s a typical white imperialist, a brash colonialist who believes his superior technical skills make him better than the “indigeneous” cooks, and the people he wants to enslave aren’t the “natives” but white people. Eighty-one percent of known meth addicts are white people, and Walter wants each and every one of them to be addicted to his product. He’s no more a Hawkeye out to preserve Mohican culture from white incursion than he is a Lt. Dunbar determined to stall American encroachment into Sioux territory. In short: the trope Harris wants to use to condemn Breaking Bad just doesn’t apply to a show that’s more concerned with the ruthlessness of capitalist competition than the color of the working class.

I’m not saying there isn’t a racial component to the show, because there obviously is. This just isn’t it.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can finish analyzing “Gliding Over All,” so more shortly.

Comments (51)

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  1. rea says:

    It’s a bit odd for Harris to blame the character of Hawkeye on Daniel Day Lewis rather than James Fenmore Cooper

    • SEK says:

      I don’t think he’s “blaming” anyone, just pointing out a common trope in American literature. He’s right to do so, in that case, just not when it comes to BB.

      • rea says:

        Well, I may have this all wrong–I have not seen the movie and I gather it’s a bit different than the book, and it has been decades since I read Cooper’s 5-book series. But (1) Hawkeye, though white, was raised by the Mohicans, and that is the source of his amazing skills, (2) Much of the series involves Hawkeye (and Chingachgook) teaching white people how to be the best white people they can be by leading them into battle as only Indian can. British military efforts are a disaster (as indeed they were in history), and it is only by fighting like Indians that the main characters escape, (3) the Mohicans’ problem is not so much the whites as their mortal enemies the Hurons, and (4) rather astonishingly considering when the book was written, the female love interest character is part black.

        The books come closer to fitting the “Magic Negro” (or in this case, Magic Native American) trope than the “Mighty Whitey” trope.

        • etv13 says:

          I’m the opposite of you (seen the movie, haven’t read the book), but your points 1-3 are equally applicable to the movie, except that I wouldn’t say Hawkeye leads anyone, Native American or White, and his teaching is limited to “answers Cora’s questions and tells her a story.”

        • greylocks says:

          Yeah, I don’t get it either.

          There’s no way Hawkeye fits the trope. He kills Indians and Frenchmen with equal relish. And he doesn’t have any Indians of his own to lead except what’s left of his adopted family. Hence the title. Duh.

          You can certainly find objectionable stereotypes in the film (especially Magua), but Hawkeye is no John Dunbar.

          • rea says:

            And note that in the book, at least, Magua’s the way he is because of contact with whties (he’s an alcoholic)

            • SEK says:

              I hope it’s clear that I’m not lumping all those together under the “Mighty Whitey” trope, just saying that a not-uncommon reading of Last of the Mohicans is that he survives because, as a white man, he’s able to take the skills he’s taught and put them to better use than his teachers … and that this allows him to “defeat” those who seek to wipe out the Mohicans in an a manner that circumvents the one-drop rule.

              By which I mean, I’m sorry. I should’ve explained that better. For someone who studies rhetoric, I’m too frequently writing in short-cuts that an audience of English professors would understand instead of explaining my logic for the audience I actually have. My apologies.

              • rea says:

                Well, the last thing I want to do is tangle with an English professor over the meaning of a book I loved when I was 11, but outgrew by 16, and haven’t read since about 1972.

    • Hanspeter says:

      To anyone who has read through to “The Prairie” (the last of the Leatherstocking books), it is clear that Hawkeye from the very beginning is not a ‘Mighty Whitey’, so Harris is way off in using that as an example. Bumppo perseveres not because he is white (and therefore supposedly better), but because he just wants to be left the fuck alone. About as close as he gets to thinking he’s better than the Native Americans is that as far as he’s concerned, through their way of life, their beliefs, superstitions, customs, etc, whites and Native Americans are just completely different (but half the time he considers himself different and apart from the white characters). Cooper makes him better than most other white characters, but if anything, it’s because his Indian upbringing gave him skills to survive that the other white characters didn’t. He never really says that this makes him better than the indian characters in the novels.

      Harris would have had a little better luck with Roger Moore in “Live and Let Die”.

  2. SEK says:

    So on Twitter — a medium to which long-winded assholes like myself aren’t well-suited — Malcolm Harris and I started discussing the connection between the whiteness of Walter White and the purity of his blue meth, and I’ll say this, first: I think Malcolm has a point about the show fetishizing purity in a way that’s more novelistic than realistic. But I don’t think that ties back to the idea of “Mighty Whitey” the way he does. As noted above, the trope in question — and the examples he gives of the “Mighty Whitey” trope — doesn’t fit the circumstances of the show. Walter’s a one-man capitalist caricature who doesn’t borrow from both the white and non-white worlds to become the best of both in an attempt to save the non-white one, so he’s no Hawkeye or Lt. Dunbar. I’m not saying the show doesn’t have racial politics, just that these are the ones it has.

    My claim that Lindsay adequately addressed Malcolm’s issues with purity could’ve been fleshed out further, though, I admit. I just think Lindsay demonstrated that the quest for purity was on the production end, and that no matter what the distributors say or Walter’s insistence that his product remain uncut, we don’t actually know what happens when his meth hits the street anymore. When the operation was smaller, yes, we did; but at this point, what happens in the Czech Republic likely stays in the Czech Republic.

  3. Protagoras says:

    Breaking Bad certainly doesn’t seem to be an example of any of this, but I’m a little curious about the trope itself apart from the relevance to Breaking Bad. An outsider’s perspective will sometimes actually enable them to notice things that insiders will miss. And as a literary/artistic trope, non-whites/non-westerners noticing things about whites/westerners that the latter miss and helping them understand themselves better also happens. I’m not denying that there are clearly racist “mighty whitey” stories, and indeed the stories that portray the non-whites as the insightful ones are not for that reason guaranteed (or even all that likely) not to be racist, but I don’t think the concept that an outsider’s perspective can be superior is automatically racist, so I’m wondering if there’s any simple analysis of when it’s racist or not. Perhaps there isn’t; perhaps it always comes down to those devilish details and issues of historical context.

    • SEK says:

      perhaps it always comes down to those devilish details and issues of historical context.

      It does. There’s nothing inherently racist about validating an outsider’s perspective or admiring an outsider’s technological superiority … it’s just that in Western literature and culture, it’s always coded as a white man bringing technology or culture to some brown savages. That said, a good example of a non-racist version of this trope is Star Trek: The Next Generation, which at its best — when it’s confronting the Prime Directive — debates the merits of sharing the advantages of its society because it knows it’ll bring the disadvantages along with it. In short, the trope’s basically an extended contact narrative in which the white characters always win, but you’re right, it doesn’t need to be that way, and it isn’t inherently racist.

    • montag says:

      If there’s any dominant trope in Breaking Bad, I’d say it’s unrestrained capitalism. There’s no overt racism because White isn’t interested in proving he’s superior to brown or black people. He wants to prove that he’s superior to everyone (including his old partners, and the scorecard is amassed wealth and monopoly market share).

      That brand of capitalism inevitably plays out as megalomania (Cranston himself says that the rest of the series is devoted to White inexorably metamorphosing into Scarface), but the visual and textual metaphors are all of the drive for absolute monopoly control.

      In the episode, “Say My Name,” he’s reinforcing his brand, and he’s subordinating and assimilating the competition with a marketing pitch. In “Gliding Over All,” he’s eliminating risk by the most efficient means possible, and is literally seeking international control of his particular market.

      And, of course, his “business” has enormous–and calamitous–external costs about which he has less and less interest and awareness, because acknowledgment of those costs is a fiscal and moral impediment to profit and consolidation of market power.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        He wants to prove that he’s superior to everyone (including his old partners, and the scorecard is amassed wealth and monopoly market share).

        This. In the one episode where we get to meet his old partner, everyone but Walt and Skyler are wearing shades of beige; you might remember the Apple commercials of the late nineties, following the introduction of the original iMac, in which Jeff Goldblum establishes that beige is the new white.

    • nolo says:

      I’m trying to square the discussion between you and Malcolm with the fact that it seems pretty apparent (at least to me) that Walter White is becoming more morally repugnant by the episode. Maybe it’s an anti-Mighty Whitey trope, where the white guy becomes transcendently evil once he is placed in a depraved scenario, causing nonwhite “evil” in the same scenario to pale (pardon the pun) in comparison. (The reference to the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness feels almost on point, but not quite). I’m still thinking this out, so bear with the incompleteness of the explication here.

      • Richard says:

        I dont think thats the story at all – that Walter becomes more evil once he’s placed in a depraved scenario. We’ve learned more and more that Walter’s evil was always there, just waiting to come out. The other white guy – Jesse – has not become more evil once placed in the same scenario. Indeed, we’ve seen him display feelings of empathy and humanity that he did not display when the series started (when he was just a low life would be drug dealer).

        • Is evil that doesn’t come out really there?

          Walter has character traits that have led him, when put in certain situations, to make evil choices.

          The male sexual drive has led people, when put in certain situations, to make evil choices.

          It’s the choices and actions that are the evil. Even saints experience temptation.

          • Richard says:

            I agree but Jesse, except for the cancer, has been put in the same position as Walt and is moving away from evil as Walt embraces it. I just dont see the show as making the case that Walt has chosen evil as a result of being put in a depraved scenario exceeding the depravity of the nonwhites (since Jesse has chosen a different path).

            We’ve also seen Walt being given one opportunity after another to walk away from depravity, and he’s always spurned those opportunities. More and more, I see the show as contrasting Walt and Jesse. The one has chosen evil because, at bottom, he’s a vile person. The other has moven away from evil because, unlike the perception we had when we first met the two of him, he’s not a vile person.

            • Right, all true.

              I’m saying, I think the show is a little more deft in its treatment of Walter’s motivations than to posit evil uniquely in him. The things in him that drove him to make evil decisions are not, themselves, evil. They are very human, recognizable traits that are not necessarily bad, and don’t necessarily have to lead to evil when they are awakened.

          • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

            I don’t know if Walt was always evil, but he was always a petty, insecure, arrogant jerk.

            Joining the underworld gave his worst instincts free reign.

            • Richard says:

              But he was sympathetic despite the arrogance and the pettiness. And Jesse was, when we first met him, a stupid amoral (although on a small scale) fuckup. We’ll see what happens in the final episodes but more and more I’m seeing the arc of the show as being the role reversal between Walt and Jesse.

              • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

                I agree. Early in the first season, Jesse remarks that it’s unusual for a guy to “break bad” at Walt’s age.

                The irony is that Jesse has already been written off as a bad kid, but he’s about to “break good” for want of a better word. Whereas Walt is still a good guy in the eyes of the world but that’s about to change.

            • but he was always a petty, insecure, arrogant jerk.

              He was an underpaid, underappreciated, put-upon sad sack. You wouldn’t be bitter if your little snot students laughed because they saw you work at a car wash? I don’t think that made him a jerk.

            • David Sucher says:

              “…always a petty, insecure, arrogant jerk.”

              Where do you get that? I don’t think that there is any evidence for such a statement in the show.

              • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

                Why do I think Walt was a jerk long before he became a meth kingpin?

                Well, he hid his cancer diagnosis from his wife. (Sorry, SEK.)

                Before that, he walked away from Grey Matter over something petty–and then proceeded to seethe about it for >15 years, even though (the writers strongly imply) it was his bad choice to leave.

                To top it all off, even though his former business partners still loved him and wanted to help, Walt was too proud and bitter to accept their help to pay for his cancer treatment, or even take a job from them and pay for his own cancer treatment.

                You’ve got to admit, it was pretty arrogant on Walt’s part to decide to start cooking meth without asking his wife. Sure, he wanted to provide for his family, but it never occurred to him to ask his wife whether that’s what she wanted. He certainly didn’t care that she’d prefer that he accept Gretchen and Elliott’s gift of treatment. He decided that he knew best and imposed his choice on his entire family.

                Sure, Walt was stressed and frustrated in his old life. He was put upon in many ways. I’m not saying he was a totally unsympathetic character in the beginning. But the more we learn about Walt, the more we realize that the same basic flaws in his personality are fault lines that have always been there.

                • jeer9 says:

                  I agree that he’s pretty much an angry, feels-unappreciated narcissist: self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, and thus not terribly likeable. While he does seem to care about Jesse, he refuses to treat him as anything other than an inept, reckless pseudo-adult (though he’s prey to the same sorts of consequence-free rashness – such as when he has the Honduran women clean the lab which results in their exile).

                  The one instance of momentary redemption for Walt occurs when he kills the two pushers who shot the little kid, as if Gus’s betrayal awoke a long-dormant moral sense (but one which Jesse has strangely always retained). But within a few episodes, he’s back to his old egocentric ways, bragging to Skyler that he’s the one others need to worry about, that he has things fully under control.

                  So, yes, these are character flaws that he has always possessed and that are now accentuated by the pressure and ego-fulfillment of his current predicament. “Half Measure” is my favorite episode so far, though I still believe the crime sequences are weakest part of the show.

  4. Njorl says:

    On the spectrum of whities in brownland, he’s a lot closer to Colonel Kurtz than Hawkeye.

  5. William Burns says:

    I don’t watch Breaking Bad, and every time I see the name “Walter White” I think of the guy who used to lead the NAACP. This debate on racism has been interesting from that perspective.

  6. Herbert Hoover says:

    No, no, no you see good sir, this piece of haute culture is infinitely more complex than you’re gutter trash and here is some finnagaling why. The operative trope. THE OPERATIVE TROPE. Are you fucking shitting me. Ugh. Aesthetics is an aristocratic joke go fuck yourself and eat barley paste all day.

  7. patrick II says:

    by leading them into battle as only a white man can.

    Not that it is anything to brag about, but white men have been pretty much at the top of the heap at killing people in battle for awhile now.

  8. [...] also wrote a post about Walter White and white supremacism but it’s only tangentially related to “Gliding Over All.” So there it is: three [...]

  9. Joseph Nobles says:

    Walter White has handed over a torrential flow of cash to white supremacists. The ABQ midair collision will be fireflys and teddy bears compared to what’s coming.

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